Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Matthias Seifarth for New Statesman
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What happened when Kiss went to Moscow: bullet-proof tents, rivalries and mating rituals

Gene Simmons: "If Putin is here, he will not make himself known to me."

When Gene Simmons decided he wanted to be a rock star, he made a deal with his mother: be in a band but show me how you’re going to pay the rent. He had a variety of marketable skills at his disposal. At Newtown High School in Queens, Chaim Witz, only son of Flóra, who’d brought him to New York from Israel, took stenography and typing classes. By 13 he could out-type his teacher. By 18 he was a “tele-girl” (a temp) and found himself in demand with powerful female executives in Manhattan. With his feet, he worked a Dictaphone machine to take their letters – one pedal for go, one for stop and one for rewind. The then managing editor of Vogue, Kate Rand Lloyd, heard about the only male temp on the floor at Glamour. He became her Man Friday and fixed her hectograph, rexograph and mimeograph machines.

On 29 April 1974, he made his first television appearance on The Mike Douglas Show as Gene Simmons, “The Demon”, of the rock band Kiss. He picked his way across the studio floor on 30lb silver platforms, his abnormally long, seven-inch tongue thrashing about in his mouth like a skinned snake. In a whisper he declared himself “evil incarnate”. On the sofa next to him was the comedian Totie Fields. “Is your mother watching?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be funny if under all the make-up he’s just a nice Jewish boy?” Eighteen months later, Simmons got a cheque from his record company for $1.5m. He showed it to his mother and she said, “Now what are you going to do?”

Up on the roof garden of the Park Hyatt hotel in Moscow sits Simmons today, his wiry hair, like black loft insulation, pulled into a ponytail. I’ve been taken to see him briefly, before an interview scheduled for two days later. Despite looking, in his own words, “at best like a baby dog at birth”, Simmons claims to have slept with 4,600 women, taking a record of each with a Polaroid camera. At 67, his latest conquest is Siri, whom he has programmed to call him “My Lord and Redeemer” on a cellphone with a special Kiss case.

Simmons stands when a woman arrives; he analyses the size of your bag, wondering how you fit your make-up in it. He thumbs through photos of Kiss products on his phone: Kiss guitars, Kiss car wraps – and a Kiss Kasket, a limited-edition coffin, part of his funeral range. The murdered Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell was buried in one: affection runs deep for the cartoonish glam-metal compound, now in its 44th year of music and merchandising. Among the expressions Simmons claims to have trademarked are “rich and famous” and the Chinese word xi, meaning “the West”.

Rehearsals for Russia’s May Day celebrations float up from Red Square, operatic folk songs and the chug-chug of army boots being put through their paces. Over in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin prepares a phone call to Donald Trump to talk about Syria. US-Russian relations have hit a new low. In recent months, Simmons has generated a steady flow of headlines from views that wouldn’t seem out of place in a hardline administration. Drug addicts should be sent to gulags, he said; paedophiles put to death. Islam is a “vile culture”, and don’t even get him started on immigration. On the night of the national festivities, Kiss will play the Moscow Olympic Stadium to 15,000 people who’d rather hear “Crazy Crazy Nights” than “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”.

Will Putin be at the gig?

“If he is, he will not make himself known to me,” he says, drifting off to his room.

Gene Simmons’s hoist, which enables him to float 30 foot above the stage, puts a great strain on his body because his costume gives him an extra 50lb in weight. He recently fell over on to his back and couldn’t get up again, like a turtle. At the show, he will be spitting fake blood. But today’s soundcheck is a sedate affair: a three-hour dissection of stage manoeuvres, the testing of winches and timing of feet. In plain clothes, the band’s frontmen, Simmons and Paul Stanley, step on hydraulic arms and sweep out over the empty arena like two tree surgeons. Simmons noodles on his bass – snatches of Peter and the Wolf and “The Pink Panther Theme” – but seems less interested in playing the well-oiled anthems of Kiss.

It’s like watching a group of men congregate around a car they’re refitting, or a hole they’re digging in the ground. They seem completely absorbed – but every so often, with a sting, a guitar pick hits my face, 30 feet away at the side of the stage. Throwing their personalised, painted guitar picks at people is part of Kiss’s mating ritual. Stanley greeted me remotely earlier by despatching a fistful of them via the tour manager, the way a man might order a drink for a lady across a hotel bar. Another pick hits my forehead. “Hey, Statesman.” And another. “Can someone lift her on to the stage?”

There are no women in the Kiss entourage, apart from one who carries the costumes and another who manoeuvres the large wheelie bins containing the make-up and cosmetic products the men administer themselves. Both employees are on the younger side. It was a different story in Moscow thirty years ago, as Jon Bon Jovi told the NS, when, at the first Western rock gigs in Russia, babushkas swept the stadiums with brooms made of twigs.

At the centre of the Kiss team is a man who will confirm this: Doc McGhee, the music mogul sacked by Jon Bon Jovi after McGhee was convicted for drug smuggling. In 1989, partly to get around his jail sentence in the US, McGhee collaborated with the Russian musician Stas Namin to bring Western bands to the country. Namin’s grandfather was a Bolshevik statesman who served under Lenin, Stalin and ­Khrushchev. The Moscow Music Peace Festival happened on Gorbachev’s watch. McGhee spent three days with the president at the Kremlin offering him $10m for the rights to a book and film of his life. You can’t blame him for trying.

It was different putting on gigs in those days. You had to allow 12 hours for an eight-hour drive to account for the number of times you’d have to stop and bribe border guards with records, or wake Alice Cooper up from the tour bus and get him to do an autograph in order to be allowed on your way. McGhee brought his own ice from Scandinavia. You couldn’t buy records in Russia but there was a feverish black-market trade on street corners in albums pressed on to old X-rays. A young interpreter joins the band one night and talks about her parents’ time with bright eyes. “It’s different now that you have access to everything,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter so much any more.”

Outside the hotel, the teenage boys keeping a three-day vigil for Simmons and Stanley might disagree. Kirill and Daniel have flown four hours from Tomsk, Siberia, for the concert. They are 14 and first saw the band’s white faces in a magazine. Dmitri, in his thirties, knew of Kiss only from some famous graffiti in Red Square: their double “lightning S”, banned in some countries for its proximity to Nazi insignia, appealed to his teenage brain. I bring Stanley’s guitar picks out of my pocket. Twenty boys scrum violently like pigeons on a loaf of bread.

Back at the soundcheck, Kiss leave the stage in strict formation, 20 feet apart, each flanked by a member of staff as though surrounded by great crowds. It’s a small hint of the invisible rules, the secret rivalries, covenants and compromises that allow opposing characters to exist side by side for decades in the classic rock bands. Simmons is the face of Kiss but Stanley’s limousine always arrives first, “because he’s the boss”, someone mutters. Stanley applies his make-up – a soft-faced, effeminate character known as The Starchild – in a private room, while Simmons packs into one dressing room with the rest of the band, playing the Kinks at loud volume.

Gene takes over two hours to complete the process “because he is talking all the time”, Stanley says. “It’s very hard to do it when your mouth is moving. Me, I can do it in half an hour.”

Stanley drifts down the corridor and, taking my chances, I slip into his dressing room behind him. It’s a triumph of interior decorating, the Soviet-style lime-green walls and strip lighting obscured by satin drapes like a black-and-white version of the purple “foo foo room” that Prince used to set up backstage. There is a black satin bed should he need a lie-down for any reason. There are weights of various sizes and a medicine ball – and in the corner, lit with old-fashioned make-up lights, his own cosmetics area.

“Here is my clown white,” he says softly, picking up a pot of the thick, sweat-resistant foundation they discovered in the Seventies. “And here are my puffs.” Why do they do their own make-up?

“Because it’s a ritual,” he says. “It’s a rite of passage. I can’t imagine sitting in a chair like a dummy and having somebody painting my face. It is putting on my uniform. It’s my colours. And it’s better for me in here than the chaos in the other room.”

Stanley takes a seat on a leather sofa, one leg crossed over the other, eyes on the floor. On his mirror, there is a photo of him playing the burned and disfigured lead in Phantom of the Opera, a Toronto production, in 1999. Above it is written “Star of the Show”.

He was born Stanley Eisen, “a little fat kid”, deaf in one ear as a result of microtia, a deformity of the ear canal. He was raised on opera and Broadway. As a young man he drove a taxi. He speaks in careful but lyrical sentences, and gets straight down to business.

“I always found it interesting that a lot of the critics were venomous in their dislike of us,” he says. “It’s something that perhaps they should work out on the psychiatrist’s couch. Because the dislike for the band was so out of whack, so out of proportion, you almost have to look at someone and go: who beat you as a child!”

In 1978 the NME ran an interview with Simmons under a headline it had also used for Freddie Mercury: “Is this man a prat?”

“The fact is that what we do has endured,” Stanley says. “What we are doing has no expiration date. Some of the critics who embraced us when we were struggling spurned us when we became successful. Once you gain acceptance you have ‘sold out’. Well, sold out means the place is full. I never felt the need to counter the vitriol because I was too busy succeeding.”

Stanley Eisen is the son of Austrian and Polish Jews who escaped to New York via Amsterdam. Simmons’s mother was born in Hungary and spent many months in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, where she saw most of her family put to death. She fled to the new state of Israel, where her only son was born, and moved to New York in 1957 after her husband deserted the family. Stanley and Simmons have survived many line-up changes in their band: they once had a member called Vince Cusano, whom Simmons renamed Vinnie Vincent, because the old name sounded “like a fruit vendor”. Their tour manager, Steev Toth, has Hungarian and Jewish ancestry. The guitarist Tommy Thayer is the son of Brigadier General James Thayer, who liberated 15,000 Hungarian Jews from a concentration camp in Austria which, Simmons thinks, may have been his mother’s.

Paul Stanley: "I have said to Gene, I would shoot myself if I had your life."

“We are children of immigrants,” Stanley says. “We are children of the post-Holocaust; we have a certain mentality, and a mindset, and a work ethic. I was taught you don’t take anything that isn’t yours, don’t take anything that you don’t deserve and don’t take anything you didn’t work for.

“We are, more than ever, brothers. That doesn’t mean we want to spend all our time together. I have said to Gene before, ‘I’d shoot myself if I had your life.’”

Why?

“Because what is appealing to Gene in life is not my desire. And my life is boring to him.” He stretches along the whole length of the sofa, beginning to relax.

It is 4pm, and from behind a Superman curtain down the corridor, the muffled sound of Sixties British music signals the start of the transformation. “All right?” barks a cod London accent. I can make out Simmons’s silver platforms propped up on the top of a crate but I cannot see his face.

“He is the strangest guy,” their manager Doc McGhee told me the previous night in the hotel bar. “I mean, the strangest legitimate guy I know – I know bipolar guys, guys with mental problems. He has NO friends.”

Simmons’s family life played out in 2011 on a popular reality-TV show called Gene Simmons Family Jewels. For decades he had been “happily unmarried” to the erotic actress Shannon Tweed, the star of films including Meatballs III and Indecent Behaviour. The couple have two children, but they did not live together.

“The show made him behave differently towards his family,” McGhee told me. “It showed him from different angles and he didn’t like what he saw.” The idea inspired McGhee to conceive another programme called Extreme Combover: “You do this thing to your hair, and you think it looks good, but everyone else sees it from a different angle. My first two contestants would be Gene Simmons and Donald Trump.” Simmons appeared with Trump on The Apprentice (Trump fired him) but Combover has yet to be made.

The Superman curtain is ajar and I can see Simmons in profile, emerging from behind a wall. The next time I look up, he has pulled himself across the room on his wheelie chair and sits facing me with legs thrown apart, groin open, presenting a silver codpiece.

“All right?”

Nothing can prepare you for the Kiss make-up transformation in the flesh, and the psychological shift it occasions in both onlooker and band. One by one, a series of giant, seven-foot space clowns, taller than anything else in the building and whiter than the moon, emerges, each with a look of surprise on its face. High up the door frame of Stanley’s dressing room peers a face like a sad mime, one eye a black star, red lips pulled into a feminine pout. He takes to the corridor with the careful elegance of a giraffe – and there is something new in his manner; glorying in eye contact now, waving his platform boots in my face. Suddenly the biggest mystery of all – how Kiss can claim to have got so much sex – is a mystery no more. The white faces are frozen as men of 25. And the costumes, if you can call them that, directly facilitate inappropriate physical interplay: all rules of personal space are broken as, without thinking, you find yourself touching and poking them. A tail emerges from Paul Stanley’s satin backside and my hand closes around it.

“Is it real rabbit?”

“Will you call me a fraud if it’s not?”

He bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

Simmons, hair pulled into a five-inch topknot and with giant leather bat wings under his arms, is a different beast. His entire body is plated in armour – part orc, part titanium warthog – and where Stanley is charming, he bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

He talks little, but what he wants, he gets with his body. He pulls the make-up girl in for a hug – by the hair. I am told under no circumstances to get in his line of vision after the show, because if I do so he will “slime” me with fake blood and sweat. He pretends he hasn’t seen me – then backs me into the wall with a little too much force, his spikes digging into the back of my hands.

***

The next morning, up in the second-floor restaurant, Simmons has breakfast with Shannon Tweed. They finally married in 2011. Tweed, 60, is dressed in pink and flicking through Time magazine. Simmons’s thumbnails are short and wrecked, black with last night’s make-up. Silver hair curls on his chest: in his mirrored sunglasses and military-style shirt with gold adornments, he looks like Gaddafi at leisure. He moves my Dictaphone closer.

On the way home from school, he would go to the library and read the encyclopaedias. That’s where he learned that Edward VI used to torture animals. “When you’re king, who’s going to tell you not to skin a frog alive?” he reasons. I ask him about his childhood heroes. “I didn’t have heroes,” he says. “Not real people. My heroes were fantasy. My heroes didn’t have flaws – Superman and Einstein and ethereal, semi-godlike figures. Because whenever you have a real-life hero it’s f***ing pathetic how they wind up – like Elvis, naked and bloated on the bathroom floor.”

He picks up his phone and summons Siri to bring up a picture of the British dish of faggots in gravy. “Explain this to me – what the hell is that?” he asks. “The English were always a smaller people because of the food. After the war you had beans on toast and what the f*** else did you eat? In the States we had butter and pancakes – it was always a big supply. If Jagger got into my outfit on seven-inch heels spitting fire and flying through the air, he would be exhausted. Put Bono in my outfit? Good luck.”

It seems a good time to ask him how he feels on stage.

“I can glibly speak about it,” he says. “But in real terms I am aware that there is a transformation that takes place here –” he points at his ribs. “I am aware that my chest cavity expands, and my heart is pumping, and the only thing I can compare it to is when a boxer can be backstage toying with his little girl, then go into the ring and be oblivious to the audience, and have this kill thing.”

Tweed has looked up the root of the word “faggots” and reads from her phone in her slightly anaesthetised, Beverly Hills voice: “A bundle of pieces of iron or steel to be welded, rolled or hammered together at high temperature.”

“It’s a question of semantics,” Simmons replies. “Though I’m not anti-semantic . . .”

I ask him about the reality show that changed his life. “I didn’t like watching myself,” he says. “I mean, I love the way I look, other than these affectations [he gestures to his sunglasses]. They even filmed my facelift – I had my face thrown over my shoulder like a scarf. But in the course of the show I realised what an asshole I was.

“When I was a little kid, my mother would smack the shit out of me as soon as I went out of line. When I went off on my own, I was my own police in certain areas: I’ve never knowingly got high or drunk or smoked a cigarette, because I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart. But other than that, I was self-entitled. I’m an only child so I look to myself for everything. Part of that process is you get deluded with the sound of your own voice. And although I am fairly educated, that doesn’t mean I have wisdom.”

In the early 2000s Simmons launched a magazine called Tongue, which ran for five issues, with an emphasis on the celebration of the female form. There will be a new magazine called Mogul – “high-end pop culture, entrepreneurial” – and he shows me a mock-up of the cover with him on the front. He has published several books, including Ladies of the Night: a Historical and Personal Perspective on the Oldest Profession in the World and the business title Me, Inc: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business.

“I’m a curiosity to people in high finance,” he tells me, “because I haven’t been there and done that, but I have made a decent living. They can’t put a finger on how and why it has worked for me.” He adds, of music, “What other job would give you money in advance and you never have to pay it back?”

He has read Trump’s books. “All business books are lies,” he says. “Ten secrets of success? People want a short cut to life. You have a duty to educate yourself, and from there on it is f***ing hard, back-breaking work. Forget ‘inherent’ and ‘intrinsic’ and other big words like ‘gymnasium’. Nothing happens without hard work.”

In 2011 Simmons endorsed Mitt Romney, saying that America needed to be in the hands of a businessman. “Government is business,” he says today. “People don’t understand that. A lot of people hate Trump, I get it. I know the man –”

“Which is not to say you like him,” Tweed mutters.

“He doesn’t give a f*** what anyone thinks. You’re talking about a guy who does not care and will go to war against all media. I want a businessman in there. Not someone to dole out favours, raise your minimum wage, meantime countries get deeper and deeper into debt. I want someone who says: ‘You’re fat and bloated and you’re going on a strict diet.’ The dietician is not your friend.”

Excuse me,” his wife chips in.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re burping while talking.”

“I was? At least I didn’t fart. To make a long story short,” Simmons says, “I don’t know why anyone gives a squat what somebody with a guitar round his neck thinks about politics. ’Cos I sure as f*** don’t care what your wonderful new Prime Minister thinks about Kiss.”

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.”

He raises his handkerchief, mops his brow, surveys a black patch and muses: “Hair dye.” He’s not the first reactionary American rock star I’ve met who gets flustered talking about Donald Trump despite sharing many of his views. They’re all businessmen, headline-chasers. Trump got to be president after forty years hanging around at the same galas as them.

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.” He takes his phone and fires up an interview with the American journalist Dan Rather, in which Simmons declares that immigrants in the US should learn goddam English.

“Yesterday their cousin would have wound up in a can of dog food,” he tells me. “But today you can literally sue the president for sexual harassment and win. You want to try that here in Russia? ”

“And you know what celebrities shouldn’t do?” Tweed cuts in. “Talk politics. Don’t do it. Eat your food.”

As Simmons scoops the last of his porridge I ask about his relationship with Paul Stanley. “It’s too easy to say that we’re both Jewish and the other guys weren’t, so they didn’t survive but we did,” he says. “With Paul and me, it’s like the marriage of different alloys making titanium. Likewise with dogs. Purebreds are retarded. It’s the mixture of bloods that makes them healthy.”

Surely another advert for immigration.

“Legal immigration, do you mean?” he whispers. “Because there is a profound difference. I want to know everybody’s fingerprint. I want to know everybody’s social security number. Instead of just ghosts. Twenty million in America! More than most other countries have men, women and children. Know wot I mean?”

In the days after my return from Russia, I get 16 emails from Simmons’s personal account (he has no assistant), each containing a separate business venture he wishes me to know about. There’s a cardboard cut-out of him advertising Dr Pepper, a reproduction of his MoneyBag clothing logo, a new Kiss sandwich toaster – and a photo of him ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“You know why we were the number-one banned band in Russia?” he told me. “‘I wanna rock’n’roll all night’, ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You’ – the most powerful word in the English language is ‘I’. There is no scarier word for an authoritarian regime.”

***

Simmons was once asked to describe the experience of performing and he put it like this.

“The only comparison I can make is with the films of Leni Riefenstahl. One word from Hitler and the masses would move in unison. It was an amazing feeling of power . . . I was King Kong, pounding his chest after chewing up some damsel in distress. Godzilla stomping through Tokyo’s streets. To say I felt like God up there is not an overstatement.”

On either side of the stage at the Olympic stadium are small bulletproof tents. Paul Stanley takes a zip wire over 15,000 Russian fans and lands with force, on unforgiving platforms, on his second hip replacement. He bursts into a perfect Christ-like arc, and keeps up an energetic but slightly banal stage patter: “Here is a song from 1988!”

Over to the left, in a pool of green light, stands a crazy lump – blank of face, rolling of eye, head jerking in time to the music with globules of viscous blood bubbling up from a black mouth. For a moment, there is something tragic about Simmons, like a mad, chained bear, a freakshow. Then he’s breathing fire. Ticker tape explodes on to the crowd from two big cannons; flames leap, and then it’s over.

In the hotel car park, the door of Simmons’s taxi falls open to reveal him etched in light, head back, encrusted with fake blood. His minders walk him through the back of the building, but, knowing his ­tendency to “slime” people, no one wants to share the lift with him. 

Kiss’s UK tour begins on 27 May. Gene Simmons addresses the Oxford Union on 29 May. Details: www.oxford-union.org

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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